GRAND SLAMS

Other sports are more boring than baseball but can’t think of one I hate more. Has everything to do with growing up in a family that lived the game 24/7/365: The McLains, who’d soon enough have its first son become the infamous ex-Detroit Tigers pitcher ex-con Denny McLain, the first pitcher since Dizzy Dean to win thirty games in a single season. (That last part a tiresome appendage nevertheless compulsory.) I’m related as first cousin and for about eighteen years was more or less a third brother who always addressed Denny and still do as Dennis. So for me to believe Bull Durham is the only movie about baseball that hits a grand slam without needing to be in a stadium is probably saying my experience with Dennis isn’t about the “science” of throwing and swinging at balls—in truth, I was so bad at the sport that I couldn’t even cut it as a batboy, having been replaced by a set of twin girls—it’s more about experiencing the jock fanaticism for “the show” that overwhelms athletes. Bull Durham doesn’t explicitly examine the undercurrent of sports corruption but implies its presence, that fixation for winning inhibits mental, emotional and ethical norms. Kevin Costner’s Crash is half-Dennis: he’s the physical portrait, minus the fat ass poundage, we often see in failed or retired sports figures, that they seem punch-drunk, less from the ever-handy Bud  than from their sport having consumed them. The performance might have been warning about how sports suppress maturity: Dennis, for example, wrote three books—Nobody’s Perfect, Strikeout and I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect—personifying “it’s still everybody else’s fault” as excuse for ending up in prison twice. The performance isn’t cautionary because Crash’s other half isn’t sociopathic: he’s a rarity—a thinking man’s athlete who recognizes the trap, that too often the field of ambitions is a marathon of drudgery, that an athletic strives to become record-setting icon not primarily because of who he wants to be or what his talents are, but because of what others want from him, like Dennis living out the dream of his father. There’s one accepted implicit explanation in the self-justifying memoirs: his father, a disciplinarian, died at the age of 37 from a sudden heart attack when Dennis was a high school freshman, already a local celebrity and not just for throwing a merciless fastball: he was also a prodigy at the Hammond organ. (His recital version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” continues to reverberate in my head.) From then on, little if any maternal authority, guidance or mentorship except coaching prevailed. His younger brother Tim and I had ringside seats to watch his accelerating insubordination and out-of-control ego.

Considering the realities of baseball as I perceive them, Bull Durham is of course too clever by half: name the players in one or any of the major or bush league teams able to tell us who Susan Sontag is. (Dennis would know, being intensely media-aware, a gift which helped make him a polemic radio talk show host.) This name-dropping doesn’t hurt the movie one bit, for baseball haters, it’s pure revel—telling us that director-screenwriter Ron Shelton has one eye on the bleachers of the bored and the other on the mound. And often both on the bed: this movie is insistently sexy, tantalizing for its over-emphasis on crotches. Not only are the men’s frequently filling up the screen, leading lady Susan Sarandon is quite eager to expose hers. When not spreading the legs or jingle-jangling silver jewelry, her Annie is reciting Blake and Whitman. She’s not just an over-dressed, hot-to-trot poetess, she’s also a groupie-coach who literally builds a candle-lit shrine ready for the Church of Baseball, about which a hater could lose it as fast as one of Dennis’s pitches. Sarandon almost didn’t get to play her: “I had to grovel,” she told the N.Y.Times. “The studio had a list of people who they preferred, and I was not on it.” Those others refused to audition, so when Shelton asked her to move beyond the humiliation of having to read, she dressed herself up in a “showy red and white striped” number that was the clincher. (Works in the movie as well.) Happily, Sarandon’s been decaffed, viewers won’t have to go through the jitters of her feminism, yet, no matter how wonderful she is—a performance that gets better with repeat viewing—I have to say I’ve known few women like her Annie except in television, where she’d have a brief career as a sportscaster. (Her intelligence would eventually scare the station’s chief sports anchor.) We’ve all met plenty of the other kind, the bimbos whose only aims are to pull at the jockstraps.

Dennis’s long-suffering wife Sharyn is halfway up the Annie scale. Coming from a baseball father, the illustrious Lou Boudreau, she wasn’t monomaniacal for the love of the game; she didn’t fill out any home scoresheets from WGN’s televised games like her husband, who had binders of them. Frequently stylized in high-pile hair to lessen her shortness, she resembled Astrud Gilberto—iow, 60s incarnate. In spite of Dennis’s mother’s objections, I liked her immediately; she was funny, extremely well-mannered and an unostentatious Annie clotheshorse at the games, the latest in Hudson’s apparel. She smiled a lot when the cameras were on and, understandably, was later stoically passive about Dennis’s legal whammies, staying away from the media snooping for headlines. Mother of four, she kept the family together during the darkest hours, and it’s perhaps Dennis’s one clear statement of truth that she could be deemed a saint. She did divorce him when he re-upped for another term of involuntary servitude after being convicted of embezzlement. During this period, under treatment for high blood pressure, she had a heart attack. Released after six years in the pen, Dennis got down on his knees to beg forgiveness and asked her to remarry him. Remaining together, she’s of late been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and, following doctors’ orders, he lost roughly 160 pounds, having maxed out at around 320. They confirm one of the most unaccountable facts of life we all share from experience and without prejudice—that nothing is more blind than love.

On a 2006 trip to Minneapolis to see a friend, we decided to take in an early matinee and, both liking Joan Allen’s edginess, watched The Upside of Anger. She didn’t let us down, hitting her own grand slam as the most entertaining boozed bitch supreme in American movies in years. Not knowing anything about the picture before hand, the other surprise was Costner, carrying some twenty extra pounds, as a boozing ex-baseball player-now-radio-personality. I leaned over to my friend and said, “He sounds like Dennis.” Indeed Mike Bender, who smartly wrote and directed, modeled some parts of Costner’s Denny on him, relative to the years he gigged as popular WXZT blabbermouth, more in schmoozy smartass mode than hard drinking; in case anyone has forgotten, his “sauce” of choice was Pepsi. Costner’s Denny has Dennis’s chronic inability to keep sports the center of chat on his radio show, and also has his dependence on selling sports memorabilia, buying box loads of Rawlings baseballs to be signed in order to “keep me in firewood.” (Dennis continues the apparently lucrative keepsakes circuit.) Costner’s Denny has redemptive qualities; the real Dennis will semi-regularly walk the path of The Downside of Stupidity: in a radio interview, he pulled out of nowhere the whopper that his Polish-American Roman Catholic mother was in fact a Jew who intervened to prevent him from signing up with the N.Y. Yankees. Even the website Jew Or Not Jew fell for it until informed of his real roots. In a three month period in 2015, Dennis lost a civil law suit when he tried to squelch on paying fees due a former business partner; then his own lawyer was fined by the court when, repeatedly told to stick to the major issue of who was going to pay the complainant’s attorney, he verbally affronted a judge; and, during a visit to a metal fabricating company, Dennis claims, in another lawsuit, that an unnamed person “willfully, recklessly or negligently drove and operated a forklift causing a load of railroad ties to violently crash” on him. The first two dramatically expressed adjectives appear to allege established prior intent. There’s this: sometime before the “accident” Dennis was extolling the virtues of railroad ties on his Facebook page, which in reading conjured something scammy. The suit remains unresolved. In April, 2017 came the news that Dennis would replace a controversial talking head on Detroit’s 910 AM Superstation, this time yakking about all things other than baseball. Haven’t yet Googled to check if he’s still employed there.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 9/2017) All Rights Reserved.